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Why the Political Comments?
Beyond Popcorn: Science Fiction is a Literature of Ideas
Welcome. In this added special note, written during my 2022 Reno (renovation) of this site, I wish to explain the occasional insertion of political commentary. We published all aspects of Speculative Fiction (SF, Fantasy, Horror) but here I am going to emphasize Science Fiction. Note: the great anthologist Judith Merril declared: "Science Fiction is a literature of the possible and probable. Fantasy is a literature of the impossible and the improbable." Taking nothing away from great Fantasy or Horror, Science Fiction (SF) is the subgenre of Speculative Fiction that deals in rational, scientific thinking. SF may be entertainment (popcorn) much of the time, but more often than the other subgenres it branches into serious theorizing in the form of a fictional hypothesis or theory.
I am actually now reminded of the prefaces written by great anthologists in the 1960s (post SF golden & silver ages) like August Derleth, Judith Merril, Damon Knight, and many others. It was noticeable to me, as an eagerly reading teenager already, that it always seemed necessary to explain that SF is not 'sigh-fie' or a shameful pleasure but actually consists of some of world literature's greatest writings. Philosophical, political, utopian, dystopian literature is a central pillar of world literature, not a cartoon or clown show to be embarrassed about as many people (especially in religiously rigid cultures like historical USA) seem to think. Hence, Damon Knight's description in one of his apologiae of a person feeling the need to read an SF magazine on a trolley, hiding it behind a newspaper to avoid ridicule from fellow passengers. That may no longer apply to day, but in the 1960s it still seemed necessary. Even in the 1990s, I gave a talk to a readers' group in San Diego, explaining how for example the wooden horse in post-Homeric literature (does not occur in the actual Iliad) is SF whereas the goddesses are Fantasy.
Some of my 2000s comments are a bit angry and raw, like the decade that spawned them (and worse yet to come as we know after 2016 or so). As already stated, these were my personal opinions and did not necessarily represent the views of my valued team members. My broader goal was to elevate our magazine beyond popcorn and cartoon level (to which the so-called 'sigh-fie' typically is relegated) and make our magazine more relevant in a broader intellectual sense. As I'll demonstrate on this page, Speculative Fiction has long been not only a Literature of Ideas, but in fact often a platform for great philosophical insights. Political philosophy therefore will not be alien (no pun intended) to our imaginative literature with its Sense of Wonder.
To explain briefly: I had after 1992 (long since) become what the progressive television news and opinion commentator Nicolle Wallace has described as "a recovering republican." More specifically, during a time of great stress in my life, during my U.S. Army years, I was for some time a Reagan fan (big mistake, in retrospect). I was seduced by his smarmy actor persona, with sugar coating over dumb ideas. In the longer term, I had been a progressive thinker (more in line with Democrats generally) during my earlier college years, and by 1992 had switched back to the party of my younger idealism. Today (2022) I have long been a Sen. Bernie Sanders type of thinker, and admire politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC), combat veteran Rep. Tammie Duckworth, and the like. The only corporate republican whose memory today does not make me retch is the late, great Sen. John McCain. That's a quick, fair idea of where I stand. That's all we need at the moment to understand what I was trying to do in the 2000s at our magazine.
My guiding philosophy at the time was to raise our magazine above kiddie-book fiction to a higher broader philosophical level. The best of the literature, in fact, rises to that level. I wanted to make us more relevant to society and journalism in an immediate sense. Then, during this reno in 2022, I was tempted to remove some of the comments, but thought better of it. Best leave a museum site as it was. My political views were and are my own; they were never meant to represent the views of my illustrious team members on the magazine. Let's talk about science fiction and politics. It will surprise some people that there is a lot to say. I'm not going to write a long lecture. I think I can quickly establish by historical fact, beyond my opinion, that political content has historically been one of the strong points of speculative fiction.
Literature of Ideas. All too often, science fiction in popular usage turns into a sort of juvenile mythmash of cartoonish proportions. I'll talk briefly below about my experiences as author of a Robinsonade titled Robinson Crusoe 1,000,000 A.D.. Let's talk about SF or SFFH as a 'Literature of Ideas.'
Why Bring These Things Up? I've been immersed in literature generally and SF especially all my life. To clarify: I use the great anthologist Judith Merril's definitions to distinguish between genres. The overall term we use is Speculative Fiction, which often embraces SFFH (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror). Ms Merril stated that "science fiction is a literature of the possible and the probable, whereas fantasy is a literature of the impossible and the improbable." That's not a value judgment but a useful segmentation of categories. Generally speaking, for a quick example, a vampire would fall under fantasy, while a robot would fall under science fiction. A little dicier would be a futuristic soldier who is genetically engineered to drink his dead enemies' blood instead of eating C-Rations; that becomes science fiction.
Examples Partial list of random famous literary SF, primarily focusing on dystopian and/or philosophical/political SF through the ages, by year or era of publication. Primary sources include Derleth anthology (see below). Many such works (novels, films) row out of previous works by the same author or others (e.g., H. G. Wells' *The Chronic Argonauts*) but space here is too limited to develop a full thesis.
Plato (fl. 4th Century BCE)
mentioned in dialogues
Timaeus (Timaios) and
Jonathan Swift (1667-1746)
Gulliver's Travels (1726)
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
The Last Man (1826) NOTE: most famous for *Frankenstein* 1818. (BIO).
H. G. Wells (1866-1946)
The Time Machine (1895) adapted from his short story
The Chronic Argonauts (1888)
Jack London (1878-1916)
The Iron Heel (1908)
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Aldous Huxley (1894-1936)
Brave New World (1932)
Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
George Orwell (1903-1950)
1984 (written 1948; pub. 1949)
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)
Time Out of Joint (1959) NOTE: PKD's *Do Androids Dream of Robot Sheep?* (1968) was the primary basis for my favorite movie, Ridley Scott's masterpiece *Blade Runner* (1982); and for *Blade Runner 2049*.
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) Hainish collection
Samuel K. Delany (b. 1942)
Margaret Atwood (b. 1939)
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
N.K. Jemisin (b. 1972)
The Fifth Season (2015) marketed as 'science fantasy,' part of the *Broken Earth* series
(A few examples; there are many more)
Wikipedia: Utopian/Dystopian Fiction
Wikipedia: List of Dystopian Lit.
August Derleth: *Beyond Time And Space* (1950)
Two Of My Dystopian SF Novels:
John T. Cullen (John Argo) (b. 1949) 50+ books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction
CON2: The Generals of October (2003) After 9/11, retitled *CON2: Washington Under Siege (Autumn of the Republic)* a near-future political thriller warning about a new U.S. civil war (or worse) to follow if Article V of the 1787 Constitution is ever activated.
Orwell in Orbit: Dystopia 2084 SF writing as John Argo; also titled *Time Train*; released 2009 as *The Long War*, eerily predicts Donald Trump, his border wall, and more dystopia.
Other thrillers with dystopian elements include *Orbital Sniper* by John T. Cullen.
Our magazine tended to follow the dictum of Ray Bradbury as a writer, who said authors should push genre distinctions aside and just write (Stephen King has made a similar statement, urging us authors to write hard and non-stop first, and only when we are done to go back, do research, and clean up the page. Genre therefore is important from an analytical standpoint, but story comes first. Along with storythe *best* of storiescome great ideas. Not just fast food entertainment, which a friend of mine describes as 'popcorn.'
In fact, I have often noticed that, among people who may enjoy a popcorn SF movie or TV show, some are often embarrassed to admit it. They will speak of their rollicking pleasure with a guilty face, speaking in a whisper about (are you ready?) SIGH-FIE. Particularly in a society with severe puritanical roots, where imaginative literature was for a long time panned as almost heretical, and where publishers created categories to separate Mainstream and Literature from so-called Genre, imaginative literature has fought an upward battle. Nevermind that we gave the world our tortured genius Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1840), who influenced the best writers of U.K. and Europe in the 19th Century, while being maligned by many in his own country for a long time. That is clearly why, when I read the great anthologies of broadly speaking the late 1950s into the early 1970s, there always seemed to be an apologia (literally, foreword, but meaning an apology) asking readers to stop slamming imaginative literature. Damon Knight, I think, in one of his prefaces, talked about pulp magazines being so hated that many people read them on the bus or trolley hidden behind a newspaper or magazine so fellow travelers would not stare or smurk. Talk about BEMs (Bug Eyed Monsters).
If I sound professorial in a way, it's because I am passionate about the field. I've made it (along with thrillers and yes, romantic stories) a mainstay of my life. I've read much, and have a lot to say about sigh-fie. I've not only been feverishly immersed in all things SF since my earliest teens, and was reading the great anthologies of the 1960s as a teen. I went on to garner a B.A. in English (Liberal Arts) from the University of Connecticut with Relateds in History, Classics, Journalism, and Languages. Beyond that cloud of wide exposure, I was speaking or involved with five languages by age 10, and reading adult type books in a European popular magazine (Stern, German for *Star*) though I could not understand any of the adult nuances. Above all, relating to this page, I was a devoted science fiction fan in late childhood and corresponded with the likes of my demigods Andre Norton and Ray Bradbury. In fact, I had the honor of corresponding again with Andre Norton in the late 1990s, and with Ray Bradbury in 2007-8. Long story for another day; save to say she honored me by including my SF novel (now titled Blue Princess) in her High Hallack library; and Ray sent me a personal rave in January 2008 for my holiday fantasy The Christmas Clock. More on that in a moment. Besides the B.A., while serving six years in the U.S. Army overseas (West Germany during the Cold War, 1975-1980) I earned an MS in Business Administration from Boston University through their overseas campus at Heidelberg, FRG. Later, back home in San Diego, working in aerospace and computer systems development, I picked up a second batchelor's with my remaining G.I. Bill funds, a B.B.A. in Computer Inforamtion Systems (Minor: Accounting) from National University. That spread of degrees has served me well in the publishing and business.
Consider Examples. A brief (partial) list of great SF works and authors should speak for itself more eloquently than a long dissertation by me. Let's look at a few of the best-known intersects of speculative fiction that you'll find being taught in universities as 'literature' (what Ezra Pound, in ranting about poetry, sneeringly called Literachoor.) Rather than blow up this page to a huge size, I'll confine myself mainly to author name and title, with Wikipedia links for your convenience. Each of the following should be considered political literary fiction. Many are to be considered dystopian literary fiction. Note also that some of the authors wrote more than one novel of this general type; I'll only quote the author's most famous political novel. This is only a short selection; plenty of other great authors have written political/philosophical imaginative or speculative fiction. I'll quickly just quote the author name and title, with a Wikipedia link to the work; Wikipedia provides links from there to the author name. In no particular order:
August Derleth: Beyond Time and Space (1950) What better place to begin my explanation than with this great classic among SF anthologies, by a master: August Derleth (1878-19xx). I first read it as a young teenager in grammar school, and re-read it often in later years. Its fundamental teachings about SF being literature, not popcorn, and of immense historical importance, have stayed with me all my life. I gave a talk once to a writers' group, in which I was asked to discuss *sigh-fie* since I appeared to be the only serious author and reader among the twenty or thirty guests at the dinner. I amazed them by raising their undestanding and consciousness beyond mass-produced fluff to understand that much of world literature is in fact Speculative Fiction. All literature is imaginative, but the best has an internal philosophical push that raises it to the highest levels.
Again: Long ago as a young teen (grammar school) I discovered August Derleth's monumental and classic 1950 anthology Beyond Time and Space. In it, Derleth masterfully strings together a list of top philosophical works of speculative fiction, including Plato's allegory *Atlantis* and Lucian of Samosata's *A True History*. The list is long, scholarly, and staggering. Many of the works can be termed dystopian or utopian (the term Utopia comes from an SF novel by Thomas More in the 1500s, whose title coins a ancient Hellenic phrase).
Note: I discovered August Derleth's 1950 epic anthology Beyond Time and Space among many other SF treasures at the New Haven CT Public Library downtown, while I was still in grammar school. My age group were supposed to stay in the children's room downstairs, but I soon learned to sneak upstairs into the adult (main) floor; and discovered there a treasure house of SFFH books including great anthologies. For years, at times reading a book a day, I built on that foundation. I also corresponded (fan mail) with Andre Norton and Ray Bradbury by about age 12.
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